Our Lady of Darkness

Chapter 17

The room was furnished sybaritically, and while not specifically Arabian, held much more ornamentation than depiction. The wallpaper was of a creamy hue, on which faint gold lines made a pattern of arabesques featuring mazes. Franz chose a large hassock that was set against a wall and from which he had an easy view of the hall, the rear archway, and the windows, whose faintly glittering curtains transmitted yellowed sunlight and blurred, dully gilded pictures of the outdoors. Silver gleamed from two black shelves beside the hassock and Franz's gaze was briefly held against his will (his fear) by a collection of small statuettes of modish young persons engaged with great hauteur in various sexual activities, chiefly perverse - the style between Art Deco and Pompeiian. Under any other circumstances he would have given them more than a passing scrutiny. They looked incredibly detailed and devilishly expensive. Byers, he knew, came of a wealthy family and produced a sizable volume of exquisite poetry and prose sketches every three or four years. Now that fortunate person set a thin, large white cup half-filled with steaming coffee and also a steaming silver pot upon a firm low stand by Franz that additionally held an obsidian ashtray. Then he settled himself in a convenient low chair, sipped the pale yellow wine he'd brought, and said, "You said you had some questions when you phoned. About that journal you attribute to Smith and of which you sent me a photocopy." Franz answered, his gaze still roving systematically. "That's right. I do have some questions for you. But first I've got to tell you what happened to me just now." "Of course. By all means. I'm most eager to know." Franz tried to condense his narrative, but soon found he couldn't do much of that without losing significance, and ended by giving a quite full and chronological account of the events of the past thirty hours. As a result, and with some help from the coffee, which he'd needed, and from his cigarettes, which he'd forgotten to smoke for nearly an hour, he began after a while to feel a considerable catharsis. His nerves settled down a great deal. He didn't find himself changing his mind about what had happened or its vital importance, but having a human companion and sympathetic listener certainly did make a great difference emotionally. For Byers paid close attention, helping him on by little nods and eye-narrowings and pursing of lips and voiced brief agreements and comments - at least they were mostly brief. True, those last weren't so much practical as aesthetic - even a shade frivolous - but that didn't bother Franz at all, at first, he was so intent on his story; while Byers, even when frivolous, seemed deeply impressed and far more than politely credulous about all Franz told him. When Franz briefly mentioned the bureaucratic runaround he'd gotten, Byers caught the humor at once, putting in, "Dance of the clarks, how quaint!" And when he heard about Cal's musical accomplishments, he observed, "Franz, you have a sure taste in girls. A harpsichordist! What could be more perfect? My current dear-friend-secretary-playfellow-cohousekeeper-cum-moon-goddess is North Chinese, supremely erudite, and works in precious metal - she did those deliciously vile silvers, cast by the lost-wax process of Cellini. She'd have served you your coffee except it's one of our personal days, when we recreate ourselves apart. I call her Fa Lo Suee (the Daughter of Fu Manchu - it's one of our semiprivate jokes) because she gives the delightfully sinister impression of being able to take over the world if ever she chose. You'll meet her if you stay this evening. Excuse me, please go on." And when Franz mentioned the astrological graffiti on Corona Heights, he whistled softly and said, "How very appropriate!" with such emphasis that Franz asked him, "Why?" but he responded, "Nothing. I mean the sheer range of our tireless defacers. Next: a pyramid of beer cans on Shasta's mystic top. This pear wine is delightful - you should taste it - a supreme creation of the San Martin winery on Santa Clara Valley's sun-kissed slopes. Pray continue." But when Franz mentioned Megapolisomancy a third or fourth time and even quoted from it, he lifted a hand in interruption and went to a tall bookcase and unlocked it and took from behind the darkly clouded glass a thin book bound in black leather beautifully tooled with silver arabesques and handed it to Franz, who opened it. It was a copy of de Castries's gracelessly printed book, identical with his own copy, as far as he could tell, save for the binding. He looked up questioningly. Byers explained, "Until this afternoon I never dreamed you owned a copy, my dear Franz. You showed me only the violet-ink journal, you'll recall, that evening in the Haight, and later sent me a photocopy of the written-on pages. You never mentioned buying another book along with it. And on that evening you were, well... rather tiddly." "In those days I was drunk all of the time," Franz said flatly . "I understand... poor Daisy... say no more. The point is this: Megapolisomancy happens to be not only a rare book, but also, literally, a very secret one. In his last years, de Castries had a change of mind about it and tried to hunt down every single copy and burn them all. And did! Almost. He was known to have behaved vindictively toward persons who refused to yield up their copies. He was, in fact, a very nasty and, I would say (except I abhor moral judgments) evil old man. At any rate, I saw no point at the time in telling you that I possessed what I thought then to be the sole surviving copy of the book." Franz said, "Thank God! I was hoping you knew something about de Castries." Byers said, "I know quite a bit. But first, finish your story. You were on Corona Heights, today's visit, and had just looked through your binoculars at the Transamerica Pyramid, which made you quote de Castries on 'our modern pyramids...' " "I will," Franz said, and did it quite quickly, but it was the worst part; it brought vividly back to him his sight of the triangular pale brown muzzle and his flight down Corona Heights, and by the time he was done he was sweating and darting his glance about again. Byers let out a sigh, then said with relish, "And so you came to me, pursued by paramentals to the very door!" And he turned in his chair to look somewhat dubiously at the blurry golden windows behind him. "Donaldus!" Franz said angrily, "I'm telling you things that happened, not some damn weird tale I've made up for your entertainment. I know it all hangs on a figure I saw several times at a distance of two miles with seven-power binoculars, and so anyone's free to talk about optical illusions and instrumental defects and the power of suggestion, but I know something about psychology and optics, and it was none of those! I went pretty deeply into the flying-saucer business, and I never once saw or heard of a single UFO that was really convincing - and I've seen haloed highlights on aircraft that were oval-shaped and glowed and pulsed exactly like the ones in half the saucer sightings. But I have no doubts of that sort about what I saw today and yesterday." But even as he was pouring that out and still uneasily checking the windows and doors and glooms himself, Franz realized that deep down inside he was beginning to doubt his memories of what he'd seen - perhaps the human mind was incapable of holding a fear like his for more than about an hour unless it were reinforced by repetition - but he was damned if he'd tell Donaldus so! He finished icily, "Of course, it's quite possible I've gone insane, temporarily or permanently, and am 'seeing things,' but until I'm sure of that I'm not going to behave like a reckless idiot - or a hilarious one." Donaldus, who had been making protesting and imploring faces at him all the while, now said injuredly and placatingly, "My dear Franz, I never for a moment doubted your seriousness or had the faintest suspicion that you were psychotic. Why, I've been inclined to believe in paramental entities ever since I read de Castries's book, and especially after hearing several circumstantial, very peculiar stories about him, and now your truly shocking eyewitness narrative has swept my last doubts away. But I've not seen one yet - if I did, I'm sure I'd feel all the terror you do and more - but until then, and perhaps in any case, and despite the proper horror they evoke in us, they are most fascinating entities, don't you agree? Now as for thinking your account a tale or story, my dear Franz, to be a good story is to me the highest test of the truth of anything. I make no distinction whatever between reality and fantasy, or the objective and the subjective. All life and all awareness are ultimately one, including intensest pain and death itself. Not all the play need please us, and ends are never comforting. Some things fit together harmoniously and beautifully and startlingly with thrilling discords - those are true - and some do not, and those are merely bad art. Don't you see?" Franz had no immediate comment. He certainly hadn't given de Castries's book the least credence by itself, but... He nodded thoughtfully, though hardly in answer to the question. He wished for the sharp minds of Gun and Saul... and Cal. "And now to tell you my story," Donaldus said, quite satisfied. "But first a touch of brandy - that seems called for. And you? Well, some hot coffee then, I'll fetch it. And a few biscuits? Yes." Franz had begun to feel headachy and slightly nauseated. The plain arrowroot cookies, barely sweet, seemed to help. He poured himself coffee from the fresh pot, adding some of the cream and sugar his host had thoughtfully brought this time. It helped, too. He didn't relax his watchfulness, but he began to feel more comfortable in it, as if the awareness of danger were becoming a way of life.

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